Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Coroners


Coroners play an important part in many crime novels – just how many, I discovered some years back, when I was asked to contribute an essay on coroners and medical examiners to the Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing. Since I wrote that essay, there has been no let-up in the flow of stories featuring coroners – in fact, they seem increasingly to be taking centre stage.

Priscilla Masters has, for instance, created a likeable coroner, Martha Gunn, who features in one of her detective series. And a coroner called Ceri Hussain is one of the main characters in my latest Harry Devlin novel, Waterloo Sunset. When researching for that book, I received a great deal of help from the Liverpool City Coroner, Andre Rebello, and from a part-time coroner, Jean Harkin, and what I learned left me full of admiration for the work that good coroners do.

A recent big seller is M.R. Hall’s The Coroner, which introduces a new series character, Jenny Cooper. Matthew Hall proved to be an articulate panellist when we met at Crimefest recently. He is a former lawyer who has written extensively for television, and his experience is evident in the way he builds the suspense in a story which sees Jenny investigating the deaths of two young people, and finding that a conspiracy connects them.

Jenny has a history of depression, and I found this an extremely interesting aspect to the story, especially as I’ve known a number of friends suffer from this sometimes devastating condition. I have to say I didn’t find Jenny consistently sympathetic in the early chapters, and I certainly didn’t approve of her lying about her medical history in order to get the job – that isn’t something that any coroner should do, whatever the mitigating circumstances. But my reservations faded as the book wore on, and they didn’t stop me enjoying the accomplishment wit which Matthew fashioned the ingredients of the thriller, while paving the way for future entries in the Jenny Cooper series.

7 comments:

Maxine said...

Nice post, Martin, I enjoyed reading it (as always!). I agree with you that this coroner is initially rather unsympathetic in various ways, ethically as you point out and in others. One of the aspects of this book I enjoyed was the sense that she was constantly on the edge of everything - personal and professional - it was a question of which precipice would she slip off first. This added to the tension well, I thought, from the reader perspective - and the author was quite clever in having so many different aspects of work (sexism, ethics, office politics, legal...) and personal (family, neighbours, drugs, mental state etc) where she was not coping or had strayed over a line, you just did not know as a reader how she could keep going. Effective. (But, a disclaimer, not everyone liked this book as much as me, I've seen a couple of lukewarm reviews on blogs in the past few weeks. All a matter of taste of course.)

crimeficreader said...

I rather enjoyed The Coroner and found it quite an original read. Quite refreshing. Although I also think that the author's own position on youths in the CJS came across strongly. But he made me think again.

Jenny suffered more from anxiety and panic attacks, rather than depression though, didn't she?
And in her addiction to temazepam, I felt there was a flaw: I suspect it should have been lorazepam. The former is mainly used for sleeping problems. The latter is used for treating anxiety and I can vouch that it works in the almost instanteous way described in the novel, albeit it was temazepam that was cited. (In my first term at uni over twenty years ago, the two hour Monday 9am "intro to accountancy" lecture delivered by someone later in life outed - twice - as a fraudster [don't you just love it!], had me a bit on edge. The GP suggested I swallow a half tablet when I felt tense and it certainly packed a punch. The relief was incredible. Alas the lectures remained not so...)

My quibble over benzodiazepenes aside, I really enjoyed the novel and look forward to more from Hall.

Interesting what you say about Jenny's lying over her medical history to get the job, especially that you are an employment lawyer, Martin. I have often felt that employers have the right to too much information about the health history of their employees and even, in the case of some sectors, prospective candidates. I feel it is intrusive.

If someone has a particular problem before or during employment, I consider that fine to be disclosed and discussed. But health questionnaires can go into the nth degree of detail and I ask "what is the purpose?" If someone had a tennis elbow op 15 years ago, what is its relevance now? Ditto for a woman with a gynae op history. I fail to see the relevance.

Oh dear, sorry Martin, your comments hit on one of my pet gripes and I've gone on again. But in my line of work I have seen the information gleaned from such questionnaires abused in the past. I've even seen systems deliberately designed to capture more information that should be confidential between the employee and his/her medic, because of the abuse of a private health scheme (claim forms through HR only and not direct to the insurance provider, e.g.). I'd be very interested in your thoughts on this one!

Back to Hall again. I recently attended his step-father's event at the Hay Festival. He has a novel out with Quercus: Crime and Punishment. It focuses on real crime history in the London area from the 50s to 79 when Thatcher was elected, with more to come as we are promised a trilogy, if I remember correctly. Newman (as in G. F.) is certainly one to make you look at things from another angle. Perhaps that's where Hall learnt his trade? Just a thought...

Jilly said...

I read and enjoyed The Coroner though I agree Jenny is not always a sympathetic character - in fact there were times when I wanted to shake her! I'm looking forward to reading the next one as I found the insights into the work of a coroner very interesting.

Dorte H said...

You have a point about Jenny´s ethics, but I was very impressed by the novel which I reviewed a few months ago. Not only the plot, but also the male author´s ability to describe a depressed woman with such credibility.

Martin Edwards said...

Very interesting comments indeed - thanks.
Maxine, I feel that the author's experience of tv writing was apparent in the skill with which he built the tension, as you describe.

Martin Edwards said...

Rhian, I certainly didn't know that MRH was GFN's step-son - fascinating!
As to your question, there's a big difference between lying about matters relevant to the job application (as Jenny clearly did) and being asked intrusive questions about issues that cannot reasonably be said to relate to the job. I know from my work in disability cases, for instance, that some people worry (sometimes justifiably) about giving information about their disabilities. My feeling is that the key issue, legally, and I think in practical terms also, is whether or not the information sought is relevant to the job. If it is not relevant, the question should not be asked.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Jilly and Dorte. I agree, MRH is an accomplished writer. And I did like Jenny more by the end of the book than in the early chapters.